Part Eleven: Andy is Waving Goodbye

By TJ Worthington

First published November 2006

By the time See-Saw – memorably introduced by a caption slide bearing illustrations of two characters from the day’s programme crudely affixed to artwork of the titular playground attraction – began, there were very few authentic Watch With Mother shows left in the BBC’s lunchtime schedules. The Herbs, Ring-a-Ding, Teddy Edward and Along the Seashore and its various associates had all been phased out in the late 1970s. Andy Pandy, Barnaby, Ragtime and Playboard all received their final showings in 1980, the latter almost symbolically concluding the last of a great many repeat showings barely a week before the arrival of See-Saw.

Only 11 original Watch With Mother shows would ever appear under the See-Saw banner. Surprisingly given its relative modernity, Over the Moon was the shortest-lived of these (barring The Mr Men, which from 14 February 1983 was subsumed by Little Misses and The Mr Men), only lasting just over a further three years. Bod, The Flumps, Fingerbobs and Heads and Tails all received their last showing in 1984. Heads and Tails was, however, subsequently reworked into Two by Two, an afternoon children’s programme featuring Jenny Powell linking original Derek Griffiths-narrated excerpts from the series, while in 1985 Fingerbobs was fully remounted as Fingermouse. Aside from being produced by Michael and Joanne Cole, appearing in the same time slot and featuring the same conical paper star, this new videotaped series had little in common with its more celebrated ancestor. Rick Jones was replaced by latterday Play School presenter Iain Lauchlan, and Fingermouse, shorn of his erstwhile hand-mounted compatriots, was reinvented as a “musical paper mouse” obsessed with the sounds made by different musical instruments. It also lacked the surreal wit of Fingerbobs, which possibly accounts for the fact it is nowhere near as well or fondly remembered.

The Trumptonshire trilogy was phased out from 1985, with Chigley (which had in fact disappeared from the schedules for a couple of years in the late 1970s, for reasons that are not altogether clear) staging its final Six O’Clock Dance in the New Year of 1986. Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep later that same year, leaving only Mr Benn to continue his walks down Festive Road into the next decade and beyond.

Reaction to the retirement of these much-loved shows was mixed. In recent times they had come in for something of a bashing for being out of step with modernity, notable examples including Tony Robinson commenting that, “kids live in reality, not fucking Camberwick Green” when interviewed by Record Mirror to promote his groundbreaking and award-winning BBC children’s serial Odysseus: The Greatest Hero of Them All, and an apparently genuine letter to Points of View complaining that Chigley depicted social and gender bias that belonged to another age. On the other hand, only a couple of years later, an appeal by Andy Crane on the BBC’s “Broom Cupboard” slot for viewers to write in naming programmes that they would like to see again provoked a flurry of letters asking where Bod had got to. Even the creators of the shows were divided. Oliver Postgate took great exception to being informed that Bagpuss was being withdrawn because it was “old-fashioned”, while Gordon Murray – who had retired from the television industry by then – philosophically accepted that his programmes had enjoyed a good run and were purposefully old-fashioned to begin with.

The level of negativity directed towards these harmless and inoffensive programmes is difficult to comprehend, but perhaps makes more sense in the context of the shows that were gradually replacing them. The first new series to appear under the See-Saw banner, David McKee’s King Rollo and Michael Cole’s Bric-a-Brac, were perhaps not all that different to those that had earlier formed part of Watch With Mother – but Pigeon Street certainly was. Jointly devised and produced by Michael Cole with fellow Watch With Mother alumni David Yates, Alan Rogers and Peter Lang, this 13-part animated series (first seen in February 1981) was set in an urban street populated by working mothers, able-bodied pensioners, mixed-race families and boisterous and independent children, with an authentic-sounding reggae-influenced soundtrack and some offbeat humour thrown in for good measure. Greatly acclaimed and hugely popular with its target audience, Pigeon Street saw the BBC’s pre-school output finally achieve a goal it had been straining towards for some time.

Less culturally diverse, but no less modern in its outlook, was Postman Pat, a series produced by Ivor Wood’s Woodland Animations, that effectively transplanted the semi-rural settings of Gordon Murray’s shows into a more contemporary framework. Since its first showing in September 1981, Postman Pat has gone on to become one of the most successful children’s television programmes of all time. Less well remembered, but equally forward-thinking, were two other Woodland Animations series from around the same time – the anarchic Gran, and the factory floor-set Bertha. Equally innovatory were two series that Michael Cole produced for See-Saw. Stop-Go! was effectively a noisy urban equivalent to the likes of Along the Seashore, examining transport and machinery in a series of fast-paced documentaries, while – with astonishing prescience for a programme made in 1981 – Chock-a-Block appeared to be founded on the assumption that modern youngsters would have an automatic affinity with computerised operating systems. As charming as The Flumps may be, it’s easy to see how it would have seemed decidedly out of place in such company.

While the latterday Watch With Mother shows were busy being retired from the schedules, their original counterparts would ironically suffer an even greater indignity. En route to a BBC Children’s Programmes exhibition being held at the Liverpool International Garden Festival in 1984, several of the original puppets from The Woodentops, Flower Pot Men and Rag, Tag and Bobtail were stolen, eventually ending up at an auction house in London after being mistakenly identified as commercial toy versions. How they came to be recovered is something of a mystery – Blue Peter have always claimed they were about to be auctioned by Phillips when, by chance, a member of their production team happened to call in and recognised the missing puppets. But when the surviving members of the Westerham Arts team appeared on Wogan in 1985, they claimed the auction house was in fact Sotheby’s, who had immediately grown suspicious and contacted the BBC to ask if the original puppets were known to be missing. Whatever actually happened, the items were indeed safely returned to their rightful owners.

As a number of exhibitions in recent years have proved, many of the original puppets and indeed animation cels used in Watch With Mother shows are still around, with the threadbare Teddy from Andy Pandy amusingly proving to be particularly durable. There are, however, some notable absentees – Teddy Edward was sold at auction to a Japanese Teddy Bear museum in 1996, while Gordon Murray famously disposed of his entire stock of puppets, which by that stage were in a considerable state of disrepair, on a bonfire.

As was underlined by public interest in this unusual story, by the mid-1980s those who had watched the original Watch With Mother transmissions were starting to feel very nostalgic towards their childhood favourites. At that time, home video was a relatively new phenomenon, and the BBC’s first ventures into the market had hardly been a runaway success, with strange choices like The Baker Street Boys, Colonel Culpeper’s Flying Circus, the charity revue Fundamental Frolics and Toyah Live at The Rainbow retailing for around £25 and attracting few takers (although ironically these are now much-sought after collectors items). Early in 1987 the somewhat bold decision was taken to switch to what was seen as a “budget” price of £10 on a permanent basis, and to put more thought into the commercial potential of new releases. Lined up to launch this new price tag were Doctor Who: “Death to the Daleks” and a compilation volume of Watch With Mother.

Wrapped in a cover that intentionally emulated the artwork style of the original Watch With Mother tie-in storybooks, the video featured one episode each of Picture Book (drawn from the 1963 series rather than the originals), Andy Pandy, Flower Pot Men, Rag, Tag and Bobtail and The Woodentops, sequenced in their original weekday order and prefaced by the original Watch With Mother introductory sequence. Doctor Who: “Death to the Daleks” had proved successful enough, topping several retailers’ sales charts for weeks on end, but Watch With Mother surpassed all expectations, selling out several times in the run-up to Christmas as BBC Video struggled to keep up with demand. Far from sniggering at the primitive production values, as had become something of a cliché amongst television comics in recent years, viewers were apparently delighted to have the opportunity to see these much-loved shows again.

The release of Watch With Mother on video was quickly followed by a second volume (featuring an original Picture Book this time), separate releases for Flower Pot Men and two volumes of the colour version of Andy Pandy, and in 1989 Watch With Mother: The Next Generation. The latter featured episodes of Tales of the Riverbank, Pogle’s Wood, The Herbs, Mary, Mungo and Midge and Barnaby. It was also planned to include an episode of the colour Andy Pandy, but this was abandoned at the last minute due to timing restrictions; it was, however, still mentioned in the back cover text. Although now eagerly sought-after, Watch With Mother: The Next Generation was not as successful as the earlier volume, something that was possibly down to the target audience not yet being old enough to feel properly nostalgic for their childhood viewing, nor arguably to afford the tape. Separate releases for The Herbs, Bagpuss, Pogle’s Wood, Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley around the same time seem to have enjoyed similarly unspectacular sales, and it would be some years before nostalgia among those who remembered the colour era of Watch With Mother would become big business. Which in retrospect places enormous irony over the fate of some of the shows themselves.

Some time in the early 1990s, a huge amount of videotaped children’s programmes were bulk-erased by the BBC archives. Amongst these were episodes of Animal Magic, Take Hart, Vision On, Play School, Play Away, Jackanory Playhouse, The Adventure Game, the first three series of Rentaghost, the only known copies of the English language versions of several Tales From Europe, and a large amount of Watch With Mother. The master tapes of around half of the episodes of each of Ring-a-Ding, Ragtime, Playboard, How Do You Do!, Over the Moon and the extended versions of Bod were erased and most likely lost forever.

This was not simply an arbitrary act and, as far as those involved were concerned, was done for valid reasons; at the time, such programming was seen as having little in the way of sales potential, and it had also become clear that the budget allocated to fund the transfer of the BBC’s archives to a digital format would not extend to cover “low priority” items. It was also an isolated incident under a specific set of circumstances, and rumours of other mass wipings in recent years have no basis in fact.

However, no backup copies of any of the programmes marked out for wiping were made on any other format, and the Children’s Department were not consulted about the decision. In fact, the situation reportedly only came to light when the producer of the Tony Hart series Hart Beat requested some early editions of Take Hart to use in a new archive feature, only to discover that they had been wiped shortly beforehand. Fortunately copies of the lost episodes of Rentaghost existed elsewhere in broadcast format, and editions of Animal Magic and The Adventure Game were later recovered on domestic formats from home recordings and tapes retained by the production office. But the likelihood of many other shows destroyed during this purge turning up elsewhere remains remote.

It should be emphasised that, unlike previous occupants of the role, the BBC’s then-Archive Selector took care to ensure episodes of each show were retained as examples. While this is something to be grateful for, and the loss of some archaic children’s programming is hardly on a par with some of the more significant losses from the archives over the years, it is arguably scant consolation to those who have fond memories of a certain song from Ragtime, or a particular Alberto Frog story, and would have quite liked to see them again. One producer who was working in the Children’s Department at the time recently commented, “It was a shame – these were 2″ masters that had survived the 1970s”. That the decision displayed a remarkable lack of foresight is perhaps the most charitable remark that can be added here.

Fortunately, just about everything else ever transmitted under the Watch With Mother banner is present and correct in the archives. The original live performances of Andy Pandy were mostly not recorded, several episodes of both Rag, Tag and Bobtail and Picture Book (which were withdrawn from the schedules much earlier than any other Watch With Mother show) are missing, and in most cases the original versions of episodes of the early shows that had to be remade no longer exist. But everything else that was on film is still around, as is evidenced by a rash of recent repeats and DVD releases.

It was in fact the BBC who had led the way for this revival of Watch With Mother. Even aside from the video releases, they had repeated The Herbs on Saturday mornings in the late 1980s in response to public demand, and also transmitted an episode of Flower Pot Men on daytime BBC2 – as part of the themed day of programming A Perfect Christmas – in December 1991. When various satellite and cable television children’s channels began to emerge in the early 1990s, they were dependent on buying in a large amount of ready-made programming, and turned to many of the independent production companies who had previously made animated shows for terrestrial television. Bagpuss, The Herbs and The Mr Men would all resurface in this manner, alongside Mr Benn, which was still airing regularly on the BBC. In 1994, Channel 4 replaced their often haphazard lunchtime children’s programming with old shows bought in from Smallfilms, Filmfair and Gordon Murray – amongst them Bagpuss, Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley and The Herbs. Ratings for the time slot sharply increased, doubtless due to a great many viewers who had watched the same programmes at lunchtimes two decades earlier, and television critics like Victor Lewis-Smith were keen to enthuse over the opportunity to see such well-made and high quality children’s programming again.

Renewed interest in Watch With Mother had been steadily building when, in 1999, Bagpuss unexpectedly came top of a BBC poll to find the nation’s favourite children’s programme. Unsurprisingly this led to a huge resurgence of interest in this once virtually forgotten show – and when Bagpuss woke up, all of his friends woke up too. Bagpuss, The Herbs, Mary, Mungo and Midge, Fingerbobs, Joe, Mr Benn, Pogle’s Wood, Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley and The Mr Men have all appeared on DVD alongside many of their animated contemporaries. And while even the most ardent fan of Rubovia or Bizzy Lizzy would concede such obscure shows would be way down any sensible release schedule, it can be hoped the BBC might see fit to put together a three-disc set containing one episode of each series to have gone out as part of Watch With Mother.

The five original black and white shows haven’t exactly gone forgotten either. In 2002, the BBC began screening updated stop-motion animated remakes of Andy Pandy and Flower Pot Men, the latter now renamed Bill and Ben. Produced by Cosgrove Hall Animations, who themselves have been responsible for several highly regarded entries in ITV’s equivalent lunchtime children’s slot, these new versions introduced new characters and some subtle updating, but remained true to the tone and storytelling style of the originals. That they emerged in an era when “ironic” revivals of old television favourites are common currency makes them all the more impressive, and their success with younger viewers shows that, sometimes, traditional techniques can be just as effective as a brash, garish modern approach.

It would be nice and neat to end by saying that “traditional techniques” were what had made Watch With Mother special, but that isn’t really the entire story. They had their place in the setup, and a very significant one at that, but then again so did invented gobbledygook language, surreal humour, attempts at realism, lingering wildlife documentary footage, comically overdubbed wildlife documentary footage, and a sock puppet and a toy dog trying to outdo each other with ridiculous puns. It encompassed traditional string puppetry, alongside stop-motion and other highly idiosyncratic styles of animation, still drawings, still photography, studio-bound presenters, and someone improvising wildly with rolled-up paper on the end of his fingers. Yet as diverse in approach as the various Watch With Mother programmes may have been, they had one important unifying factor, and it is difficult to express this better than Fred Harris did at the end of the BBC Radio 4 documentary series Trumpton Riots: “The people involved cared – they knew that it mattered”.

So as the six o’clock whistle sounds at Creswell’s Chigley Biscuits and this history of Watch With Mother draws to a close, let’s take a moment to toast those same people that knew that it mattered, with – what else – a milkshake. I think I’ll have …


<Part Ten